ACM User Conference Seeks the Magic in User Interfaces

Echoing the words of science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, former YouTube user experience director Margaret Gould Stewart advised an audience of design researchers to think about creating magical experiences for their users.

"Magic disrupts the notion of reality. It elevates good design into great design," Stewart said Monday, at the opening keynote of the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Austin, Texas. She praised Internet services such as Pinterest, Instagram and YouTube for creating new ways for people to interact and tell their own stories, through successful user design.

More than 2,500 researchers have gathered at the conference to show off their work in novel user interfaces, as well as to learn about what their peers are doing. Innovative ways of interacting with technology will be one of the major themes at the event, said organizers of the conference, which goes by the abbreviation CHI, a holdover from its days as the Computer Human Interface conference.

"Not surprisingly this has been driven by the near ubiquity of touch devices," said conference chairman Joe Konstan. "There's a lot of research from the fundamental theory to practical uses of these devices."

A project from Microsoft Research called Humantenna promises to show how body gestures can be interpreted without any environment instrumentation. A user wears a small backpack with a sensor and when he, for example, raises both his arms, a computer can tell. Humantenna uses electromagnetic noise coming from power lines and appliances. The body acts as an antenna to receive the noise.

Technical program chair and Google research scientist Ed Chi said that a decade ago it was hard for people to imagine that we'd be using touchscreen smartphones and tablets. Now those devices are commonplace.

Konstan said that the many facets of social computing will also be explored at the conference. The papers and presentations will "run the gamut from ethnographic studies of how people use social computing to social computing applications and technologies," he said.

While some think social media weakens human-to-human interactions, CHI plans to explore ways to combat that.

"The CHI conference is the place where we surface these issues," Chi said. "We don't just build technologies and say we're done. In fact, that's where we say this is only the beginning."

Multiple projects plan to address the future of social media. Papers titled "Intimacy in Long-Distance Relationships over Video Chat" and "It's Complicated: How Romantic Partners Use Facebook" will address different aspects of social media.

Hundreds of unique projects have been presented over the years at CHI. In 2009 a project called Nanotouch showed that backside touch could produce smaller devices because designers wouldn't have to worry about fingers occluding the screen. The concept of backside touch has made its way into mainstream devices like Sony's PlayStation Vita, though it isn't related to Nanotouch.

In 2010, Carnegie Mellon researcher Chris Harrison turned the entire body into a touch interface with Skinput, a project that used an array of microphones to listen to taps on different parts of the body. Certain taps could be differentiated from others and control certain actions. Harrison demonstrated the project by playing a game of Tetris by just tapping on his arm and hand.

Stewart was until last month the director of user experience at Google's YouTube and will soon be starting a new job as (director of product design at Facebook), but she offered a few tips from her time at the massively successful video-sharing service. Researchers in user design should think like magicians she advised, quoting Clarke's maxim about advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic.

She warned researchers not to get their users entangled in the technology. Instead, designers should practice a magician's "sleight of hand," she said. "The moment you get too fancy, or too slick, you start to alienate someone in the creator community who feels this isn't the right place for them and their story."

Stewart praised Instagram for being "so much more compelling than a phone's built-in camera app," she said. "The technology is basically the same, but the experience is the difference." Facebook recently purchased Instagram for US$1 billion. Part of Instagram's success is due to the set a set of filters it offers that "empowers creativity and make photos that are more interesting," she said. The service also provides a platform for a user community to share their work, "so photos don't languish on your phone," she said.

User participation is another ingredient to success. She praised Pinterest for how it allows users to curate content, which is an increasingly essential way of sharing information. "We're producing content at an alarming rate, she said, adding that search algorithms can't capture all the aspects of what users may find interesting. "Algorithms don't have a good sense of humor. They don't know what good taste is. Humor and good taste are individual. What I find you funny is not necessarily what you find funny," she said.

Ease of use is another vital quality. YouTube removed the barriers to sharing videos online, she said, namely by making it easy for anyone to upload, search for and watch videos. YouTube shows 4 billion video a day. Users upload 60 hours of video every minute, she said. Such ease of use can actually disrupt existing businesses, such as the television industry, in YouTube's case. "Disruption is a critical ingredient in a massively successful platform," Stewart said.

Nick Barber covers general technology news in both text and video for IDG News Service. E-mail him at Nick_Barber@idg.com and follow him on Twitter at @nickjb.

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